Meena Harris: Kids Can Be Ambitious Without Picking a Career

In this exclusive Parents essay, author and entrepreneur Meena Harris says we should encourage kids to explore their ambitions without pinning them down.

Meena Harris

Meena Harris | Little Brown Books for Young Readers

When my first grader told me she wants to be an astronaut-president, I took her seriously. I taught her about Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to go to space, showed her videos of space simulations, and warned her that the road to Mars is paved with math

While I’m thrilled my daughter can see herself achieving big things—joining the growing ranks of girls who want to go into STEM, and the majority of voters who are ready for a woman to be president—I’m also left with a nagging question: do today’s girls feel unfairly pressured to achieve those big things? Must every young woman aspire to become an astronaut-president? 

Amid a growing youth mental health crisis, I (along with many other parents) am hyper-aware of those pressures. We’re concerned for our kids’ mental health because we’re concerned for their futures—but at the same time, our concern for their future well-being could be impacting their mental health

When we encourage our kids to think in this boundlessly ambitious way—to set their sights as high as possible and start climbing now—do they realize it’s perfectly acceptable to be only an astronaut or only a president? Or, perhaps, not define themselves by their careers at all? 

Or is this all-or-nothing ambition only natural when parents ask the loaded question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The Question has already had a reckoning, and for good reason. Adam Grant wisely suggested that we stop asking kids what job they want, and instead ask what kind of person they want to be. Other parenting experts suggest asking kids what problem they want to solve, to lead them toward a life of altruism. These queries help kids think of themselves as whole people, not just future workers; that’s a great start.

A is for Ambitious by Meena Harris

Meena Harris | Little Brown Books for Young Readers

But even these questions ask kids to start with a goal for adulthood and work backward—to establish their “real world” destiny early and practice, practice, practice. The problem is, doing so leaves little room for discovery, trial, and error, or living for the sake of living; instead, kids are steered toward establishing a myopic focus on one outcome for their lives. Fast forward to college admission season, and suddenly failing to get into your dream school isn’t just disappointing—it can feel existential.

Certainly, ambition and hard work are how some of the most enriching careers are made—but constant striving can also lead to burnout. This isn’t to say we should discourage our kids’ ambitions for adulthood, but those aren’t the only kind of ambitions. It’s ambitious to want to read a chapter book for the first time, or to invite the new kid to sit with you at lunch—and we should help our kids think that way, to understand small braveries are big achievements.

"Perhaps it’s time to stop asking kids what they want to do when they grow up—or what kind of person they want to be, or what problem they want to solve—and instead ask what they want to do today. What they want to learn, what will make them happy, and what will help those around them now." 

—Meena Harris, author of A is for Ambitious

Perhaps it’s time to stop asking kids what they want to do when they grow up—or what kind of person they want to be, or what problem they want to solve—and instead ask what they want to do today. What they want to learn, what will make them happy, and what will help those around them now. 

We should accept that our kids may not have those answers yet! So instead of assigning tasks based on what they might want to do someday, we can nurture what they’re already doing. We can introduce them to new activities, and new people—and show them that the path to a happy, fulfilling future can begin with a happy, fulfilling present.

Research supports this emphasis on curiosity over decisiveness: curious people are happier, more empathetic, and, often, high achieving. Still, the point of cultivating curiosity is not to increase productivity—it’s to explore, see what’s possible, and channel ambition into a way of thinking rather than a material outcome.

Of course, for kids of color, especially girls, it’s not enough to say “do what you want and the rest will follow.” Our daughters are socialized to believe there isn’t room for them in politics; pursuing a passion may not be worth a mountain of student loan debt; children of immigrants face unique pressures to make their parents’ sacrifices worth it. Curiosity may be empowering, but it’s also risky.

Nevertheless, these challenges emphasize the importance of giving kids the space they need to explore, early—to figure out who they are before they decide what they want to do. 

After my first grader shared her political-astronautical dreams, I asked my younger daughter to answer The Question—and she surprised me. Her big dream? “I wanna be a bad girl.” 

It’s not a career. It’s not a commitment to saving the world. It’s simply a vibe. And I’m okay with that. I want my daughters to know that in our household, that answer is just as valid as “astronaut-president.”

A is for Ambitious, by Meena Harris, is on shelves now.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles